While much of the world is still in a travel holding pattern because of COVID-19, many travel advisors are digging in deep to the industry they love so much, and they’re asking the hard questions: What do I have to do differently now to stay in business? How can I pivot what, when or how I sell travel? And recently, there have been rumblings about how can we, in the industry, work together to create a travel resurgence (not just a travel recovery) on the other side of this global pandemic?
Travel Market Report talked to a few winning travel advisors who have recently made significant, long-term changes in their businesses that have positioned them for a strong and vital future. They shared their inspiration and strategies.
Shifting cruises to all-inclusives
Pre-pandemic, Scott Asplund, owner of Plenty of Fun Travel, was known as the Carnival Cruise Guy. With over 200 agents in his unique host-agency-within-a-host-agency business model, and 85% of his book of business coming in from selling cruises, the global pause of the cruise industry could have closed his doors for good. But it didn’t.
Instead, Asplund tackled the challenge with his usual strong, positive focus and an unwavering commitment to helping his team. He identified the travel advisors in his business who were primarily and successfully selling all-inclusives, and he put them to work as mentors teaching other advisors how selling all-inclusives is different from selling cruises. He also collaborated with supplier BDMs to set up fams to give the agents who were newer to this segment first-hand experiences.
“We’re still selling cruises,” said Asplund. “And we’ll probably end up with a 50-50 split, which is healthier anyway. In the long run, having my agents sell cruises and all-inclusives will be a huge benefit. It will double their production. The money we lost [due to the pandemic], we’ll get back. I’m not worried about it.”
With all cylinders firing, this travel leader has also brought on new advisors, namely independents and those who were unhappy with their hosts and looking for a better opportunity.
When asked about his outlook on travel, Asplund’s optimism came through loud and clear: “When cruises come back [which he predicts will be in mid-December], prices will go up, commissions will be higher, and it will be business as usual … cruises will be safer than ever before. Things will look a bit different, you won’t see a lot of hugging and hand-shaking, but cruising will continue.”
Here’s one more piece of advice from Asplund for his fellow advisors: “Go to Mexico, go to the all-inclusives. Show your customers that it’s safe to travel and you can travel. You have to have the confidence to show them and promote that it’s safe - or you shouldn’t be in this business.”
Taking a respite and re-examining
Connie Saunders, founder and CEO of Total Travel & Events, Inc., started in travel in 2004 with one client; and now, 26,000 clients have booked with her agency – built one client at a time.
Along the way, she decided to leave her host agency and go out on her own. Saunders said, “I built my own CLIA and everything. I was kind of a blended agent, with some bookings on my own and others as a host,” and she explained how complicated her business processes became with multiple booking numbers, brands, and the like. “[When COVID-19 hit], I realized that’s not what I wanted. I asked myself, ‘What’s best for my agents to be successful?’”
Saunders decided to return to a host agency. “With a host, it’s industry standard that you get top commissions. It worked out better not to have to focus on which side, which booking number to use … and we no longer had to deal with licenses, bonds, fees to be independent. My pivot was mental; don’t work harder, work smarter.”
Once the pandemic settles down, Saunders believes the travel industry will come back “like a tidal wave.” She noted that when times are good, people book farther out. Advisors have to communicate with their clients four, five, or even 12 times, handling deposits, insurance, hotels, and all the different parts of the trip. But, “when travel comes back, they’ll be traveling next month or next quarter. Money will come in fast, and the shorter lifecycle of the booking will bring instant gratification for agents. We’ll all be excited again about this business.”
Saunders is also using this downtime to re-examine operations top-to-bottom. She’s consolidating and streamlining. Those items that were always on the back burner, like changing the phone system and reviewing relationships with banks, are getting done now, so her business will be more efficient when COVID-19 is over.
On the personal side, it’s “like a sabbatical. I’ve worked for 16 years building this business. I’ve kind of stepped away, vacationing in the mountains [we conducted our telephone interview with her as she enjoyed and shared a splendid view from high up in the North Carolina mountains]. I was constantly traveling, booking, working with agents. Instead of worrying about what’s not happening, I’m just enjoying the moment, my family, friends, some good wine, and taking life easier. It’s a respite. I was tired. Now, I’m rested and ready to go.”
Education, collaboration and engagement
Why would anyone want to get into travel at this time? That’s a question Steven Gould, CTC, ECC, President & CEO of Goulds Travel, has been asked repeatedly. And he has a great answer: “A lot of new agents are not jaded by the thousands of dollars that we all lost,” so they’re starting fresh and are motivated, and it’s all new and exciting for them.
With that in mind, as well as the observation that many of the agents coming into the industry now have not been properly trained, Goulds has pivoted by creating a 10-week mentorship and fast-track education program for professionals who are new to travel. Called the Travel Advisor Resource Center (TARC), the training went live at the end of August and includes education about: niche markets, CRMs, destination geography, online profiles, marketing plans, sales development and strategies, and networking and events. Supplier partners also play a role.
In a second endeavor further reinforcing his current mantra of “education, collaboration and engagement,” Gould has partnered with other agency owners and suppliers to launch Engage Tourism. The initiative has four components (social, educational conferences, trade shows, and a gala), but for now with social distancing mandates, the group is only offering Virtual Happy Hours for travel advisors through yearend.
The Virtual Happy Hours began in April, twice a month and free, and agents who have participated have said, “It’s great to reconnect with other advisors in a relaxed but professional environment.” Conversations have touched on niche markets, Instagram stories, knowledge sharing, and more, in an engaging and interactive format (rather than a traditional lecture-based style). With the help of two major host agencies spreading the word, the Virtual Happy Hours online community grew to over 400 advisors almost overnight.
“Keep in mind that the key to moving the travel industry forward out of COVID and into a rebound will be about community, not competition,” said Gould. “Our travel suppliers and travel advisors have been instrumental in picking everyone up and moving forward … We have our group chats and we help each other along. As we communicate with each other, we can all come together and keep things moving forward.
“As the world opens up again, people will be looking for travel advisors again, especially those who were left in the lurch by the OTAs. They’ll want advisors to play the pivotal role, to travel themselves, to talk about travel, dream about travel. Be the experts for your clients. We are the experts.”
We hope you took some inspiration from these outstanding travel advisors with flourishing businesses and optimistic outlooks, despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus. You know, in every type of economy, whether up or down, there are those who prosper and those who perish. Consider what you can do now in your business to reset the foundation to prosper, and to collectively help usher in a travel resurgence, rather than just a travel recovery.
FROM THE SPONSOR: Travel Planners International - A COLLECTION OF ROCKSTAR TRAVEL ADVISORS MOVING FIERCELY FORWARD EVERY DAY. Walking side-by-side our advisors and the industry, we are honored to witness our collective comeback story. As a marketing and support host agency for new and experienced travel professionals, Travel Planners International is all about the individual; with everything we do, every program we create, we celebrate YOU, the travel entrepreneur. Maintaining your brand and identity and helping your business thrive is our obsession. Family-owned since 1988, our values have never altered; integrity, customer-focused, results-oriented, teamwork, excellence, and innovation drive our everyday. Keep your business relevant; obtain our free COVID Recovery Resource guide here.